10 Things Adoption Agencies Won't Say
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Below is an excerpt from the book "1,001 Things They Won't Tell You," which was published in May 2009 and highlights popular columns from SmartMoney's long-running "10 Things" feature.
Michele Marchetti / Smart Money.com
1. “Just because we place children doesn’t mean we’re good people.”
Adoption may seem like an altruistic endeavor, but it’s also big business—and a loosely regulated one at that. “Nobody’s watching for cheaters,” says Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute and author of Adoption Nation.
Adoption has always been a local, not federal, issue, and statutes governing it vary from state to state. And few states, Pertman says, go far enough in monitoring and enforcing standards that would prevent adoption agencies from tactics like pressuring pregnant women or lying to adoptive parents. And few states, Pertman says, go far enough in monitoring and enforcing standards that would prevent adoption agencies from tactics like pressuring pregnant women or lying to adoptive parents.
So how can prospective adoptive parents start the process with confidence? First, avoid searching the Web blindly; the Internet is replete with agencies that lack a physical location—a major red flag. Instead, check out the National Foster Care & Adoption Directory, a database funded by the Department of Health and Human Services that lists licensed agencies by state. You can also research an agency’s history of complaints by contacting the licensing specialist—also listed on the site—in the state where your adoption will take place. Finally, the directory can point you to support groups that offer independent references for an agency.
2. “We have no idea how long this whole thing will take.”
When prospective parents ask how long an adoption will take, agencies often quote an average of one to two years. But the process can take even longer. First, a social worker must conduct a home study to gauge your ability to become an adoptive parent; this can involve multiple home visits and FBI clearance. When agencies estimate time frames, they typically don’t include the duration of a home study in their estimates, so be sure to factor in the four months it often takes.
Next, you must wait for a child or birth mother to be identified, then go through the legal steps—mostly paperwork—to finalize the adoption. International adoptions, in which the children often come from orphanages, can get slowed down by the country of origin’s political problems or red tape. In domestic infant adoptions, the adoption agency compiles a profile describing each family and the environment it can provide a child. The birth mother chooses adoptive parents based on these profiles, and she can be swayed by a seemingly unimportant detail, such as the prospective parents’ native state or even a pet’s name. So to avoid disappointment, prospective parents should ask what the average wait time is for people who have yet to be picked by a birth mother.
3. “Yes, we promised you the child, but that was before we spoke to the father.”
Although domestic adoptions are very rarely contested in court, experts estimate that about half of birth moms decide to keep the child at some point between the initial verbal commitment to adoption and the official termination of legal rights after the birth. Given that statistic, if an agency promises brisker-than-average results, take it as a signal that it may not be adequately investigating who else in the birth mother’s family is involved. To avoid being misled, ask the agency if it has ruled out the possibility of any biological relatives trying to claim the child. Maureen Flatley Hogan, a Bostonbased adoption lobbyist, cites recent cases in which the child’s paternal grandparents challenged an adoption. You’ll also want to ask what steps were taken to include the father in the process. Beware if the agency tells you the birth mom doesn’t know who the father is—it could leave the door open for a potential father to make a claim later.
Sometimes a birth mother contacts an agency within days of her delivery. In such cases, relinquishment shouldn’t happen until she’s out of the hospital and has received 8 to 12 hours of counseling with a social worker from an agency with extensive adoption experience. In such a case, confirm with the agency that this procedure has been followed—and get it in writing if you can.
4. “You make a lot of money? Well, our fee just went up.”
Using an agency for an adoption costs as much as $20,000 to $35,000, according to Adam Pertman. Your out-of-pocket costs can include the home study, the process of identifying a child, placement fees, and postplacement visits by a social worker. For international adoptions, they may also include the price of visas, document translation, and a financial contribution to the orphanage. The precise fee you’ll pay for each service varies from one agency to the next, so it’s important to comparison shop. Ask prospective agencies for an itemized list of charges, and consider dropping any firm that won’t cooperate.
Also, be wary of any agency that asks for your financial information before providing an itemized list of charges. A home study, required for all adoptions, usually runs between $1,000 and $3,000, but lobbyist Hogan once came across an agency that was charging consumers 10 percent of their annual income. Other agencies have been known to inflate charges when consumers are eligible for the adoption tax credit. (If your 2007 income was below $210,820, you could claim all or a portion of the $11,390 credit on that year’s return; check with your tax preparer for updated amounts.) “If the agency knows a family will be eligible [for the adoption tax credit], they may increase the cost of the adoption because, after all, the family will get it back in their taxes,” Hogan says.
5. “Our quoted price is only a fraction of what you’ll end up spending.”
Besides checking the breakdown of an agency’s fees, you’ll need to ask about extra charges that often aren’t listed at all. In an international adoption, for example, many parents find that once they arrive in the country where their child was born, they are asked to fork over money for bribes in order to grease the wheels with government officials. In domestic infant adoptions, on the other hand, agencies may not tell you about your responsibility for the birth mother’s living and medical expenses—which can run several thousand dollars—until later in the game. “It’s especially disturbing when a mom’s fees are charged ‘retroactively’ for periods of time when the couple didn’t even know she existed,” Hogan says.
If you’re paying a birth mother’s living expenses, ask to write the check directly to the provider of services, such as the birth mother’s electric company, instead of having the agency give her your money. You’ll also want to see proof of the birth mother’s medical expenses; to preserve her privacy, the agency should be able to delete any identifying information. According to Adam Pertman, some agencies have gone as far as charging adoptive parents for the full price of the birth mother’s health care even though she was already covered through Medicaid or a state-subsidized program.
6. “We’ll pressure you more than a used-car salesman.”
Preadoptive parents are understandably hesitant to question the kinds of activities that would in other circumstances send them running for the hills. Every adoption agency understands this insecurity; the worst firms exploit it with pressure tactics more commonly seen in an automobile dealership. There’s even the adoption world’s version of the bait and switch—you arrive in a foreign country only to find a child who is much older than the one you thought you were adopting or who has serious medical problems.
Another tactic in international adoptions: ratcheting up the pressure after the parents have received the medical history and a photo of the child and must decide if they want to adopt him. Some agencies will call the couple on a Friday and give them the weekend to make their decision. Or they’re told that other families or agencies are considering the child, and whoever decides first gets him, which may or may not be true.
Of course, it would be irresponsible to allow a child to languish in an orphanage while a couple takes six months deciding whether to take him. The best agencies balance the interests of both sides by giving the prospective parents about a week to turn down the referral or to make a tentative verbal commitment with the caveat that they can ask for additional information.
7. “The people we work with overseas have no experience with adoptions.”
When evaluating a U.S. agency that does international adoptions, ask about the people the agency works with overseas. Often called “agents” or “facilitators,” they act as liaisons between the agency and the foreign orphanages. Most adoption agencies have every intention of working with reputable facilitators, but in too many cases, the go-betweens have sketchy qualifications at best—as a Michigan family learned after adopting a child from Russia. In the course of a wrongfuladoption suit alleging that the agency failed to disclose the child’s multiple congenital anomalies, the parents discovered that the facilitator had no social-work training; he was a furniture refinisher and didn’t even speak Russian.
To avoid such problems, ask agencies about their overseas liaisons before committing to anything. Are these people trained child-welfare professionals? To what degree does the agency assume responsibility for the acts of employees and facilitators abroad? And how are facilitators paid? Some receive salaries, which is a good sign, while others are paid for each successful find, which encourages unethical players who just want fast cash. Finally, make sure your agency is insured. Most are; they have to be to get accreditation. If it isn’t, you’ll have little recourse in a potential lawsuit.
8. “This child may have major developmental problems.”
Some agencies would have you believe that children adopted overseas are mostly healthy kids in need of nothing more than your love and care. But many children adopted from other countries arrive in the U.S. with serious emotional and physical problems—as great or greater than those faced by children in domestic foster care.
Frequently, children adopted overseas have spent time in institutions. As a result, there is a strong possibility of medical and developmental issues that adoptive parents should explore before bringing a child home. For example, fetal alcohol syndrome is common among children adopted from Eastern Europe. And research has repeatedly indicated that children who were institutionalized as infants can have difficulty forming close relationships as they develop.
The good news is that even the most severe problems can be tackled with early intervention. Some of the best adoption agencies offer classes to prospective parents that cover these issues. To learn more on your own, check out www.adoptionlearningpartners.org, which provides a comprehensive online education program entitled “With Eyes Wide Open: A Preparation Guide to International Adoption” for about $45. In addition, the list of adoption experts at library.adoption.com includes relevant articles and studies.
9. “Our information pipeline is seriously flawed.”
Once you know the potential for health problems, you’ll face another hurdle: getting specific medical information about your prospective child from the birth country. Record keeping there might have been slipshod, or the child may have been abandoned. Even in such cases, however, some helpful information is usually available—if your agency bothers to secure it. According to a survey conducted by the Adoption Institute, 15 percent of the 1,600 responding families adopting overseas reported that their agency withheld details or gave them inaccurate information about their child.
At a minimum, the agency should have material on what the child looked like the day he was brought in—how much he weighed, whether he was responsive—and his current physical and mental health. Typically, the agency will provide you with a photo or video of the child and will hire a translator to provide a summary of his medical report. As soon as you receive the information, ask a pediatrician who specializes in international adoptees to review it—the American Academy of Pediatrics’ web site offers a list of such pediatricians in various states. You can also ask your agency or state medical society for a referral.
You should request the original documentation so that your pediatrician can compare it with the translation, checking for missing pages. Ann Arbor, Mich., pediatrician Jerri Jenista once saw two different medical reports from two different agencies about the same child. One agency had failed to translate a critical sentence: “The mother was an alcoholic and murdered the child’s sibling.”
10. “Once you’ve got your child, you’re on your own.”
The best adoption agencies continue to help out parents after the child has been placed in the home. Some offer postadoption services that guide parents through a range of problems, from how to explain adoption to the child to dealing with “postadoption depression,” a surprisingly common phenomenon among these parents.
If a child develops a medical condition, parents should be able to call the agency to ask whether it runs in the birth parents’ families. One top adoption agency even arranges to have social workers meet with the child’s teachers to help them understand any problems. And many parents return to their agency when the child is old enough to consider getting in touch with the birth mother.
But not all agencies are so diligent—many end their services the day you bring your child home. To weed out the lesser agencies, ask for the names and phone numbers of three clients whose adoptions were completed at least three years ago. Contact those adoptive parents and inquire about how the agency handled both postadoption services and the adoption process itself.